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08th Apr 2017

From looking certain to fail, Liverpool now seem destined to succeed

Tony Barrett

In one of this season’s strangest managerial instructions, Jurgen Klopp’s message to his players before they faced Stoke City was that they needed to “forget they have to play like Liverpool.”

As odd as that order was, his team carried it out to the letter for 45 minutes before realising that they had taken his directive far too literally. By changing their mindset and their approach, Liverpool also turned the result in their favour.

Should they go on to secure Champions League football, this will be the fixture that’s more significant than most.

From the moment the team sheets arrived and it was confirmed that Klopp was fielding an experimental formation and lineup, it seemed that this could be the day when their Champions League hopes were severely damaged.

At half-time, with Stoke 1-0 up despite being less than impressive, that outcome was most likely. If Stoke had been poor – and they had – Liverpool had been abject. At least Klopp’s tactics were in keeping with his pre-match message because his questionable methods ensured there was very little chance of Liverpool playing like Liverpool.

Playing a 3-5-2 system, which he used in the last half hour of their 2-2 draw against Bournemouth in midweek, Klopp also decided to draft in two youngsters, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ben Woodburn, into his starting line up with neither Philippe Coutinho nor Roberto Firmino considered fit enough to start.

On top of that, Nathaniel Clyne was shifted to left wing back, a change which allowed James Milner to move into central midfield.

Whatever Klopp’s thinking was, none of his changes worked and by half-time he had seen enough to recognise that some sort of order had to be asserted. Off went Woodburn and Alexander-Arnold, who had been let down by their manager rather than the other way around, for Coutinho and Firmino. Milner and Clyne also reverted to their more familiar roles and everything changed.

From being a team that was playing badly enough to lose to a sub-standard Stoke, Liverpool became a side that had too much quality for defeat to be inevitable.

However much Klopp got wrong at the start, his efforts to correct his own mistakes proved transformative.

From facing a situation in which sixth placed Manchester United, if they won their three games in hand, could have moved ahead of them, Liverpool’s second half revival means that their hopes of finishing in the top four and qualifying for the Champions League are in their own hands. But they’ll also know that they used up one of their lives at the Britannia Stadium.

If Liverpool perform like they did here again, they might may not be in a position to survive their own inadequacies.

As it is, Klopp’s side can take confidence from snatching their first away win since September, a victory that was made more impressive due to the fact that they were missing Sadio Mane for the first time in the Premier League.

Liverpool have also shown a timely ability to triumph in adversity, some of which was of their own making, and emerge from a significant test of their mettle as a team which had been pushed to its limits and found a way to survive on all three fronts.

As the stakes get higher and the finishing line approaches, Klopp understood why this was a victory that carried greater weight than others.

“It’s massive for the morale of the team,” he said. “It was really special. You could feel it in the dressing room afterwards but now we have to prove (how much it matters) next week. It was very important for us because this was a game that was difficult for different reasons. Stoke is a difficult place to come and take the points and in our situation it was even more difficult but we still thought it was difficult,” he said.

The situation to which Klopp referred is where his mitigation is to be found.

Whatever the folly of his team selection, he did not have an embarrassment of riches due to a combination of injuries, illness and a squad which is a few players light even when all of its members is fit and available. Without Mane, Jordan Henderson and Adam Lallana, and with neither Coutinho and Firmino sufficiently fit to start, Klopp had to make the best of what he had and he was unable to do so, initially at least.

With a largely untried system malfunctioning, Liverpool resorted to knocking long balls in the vague direction of Divock Origi. When Xherdan Shaqiri escaped from Clyne and crossed for Jonathan Walters to score on the stroke of half-time, Liverpool looked ill-equipped to respond, at least not with the team that they ended the half with.

Klopp had little option but to change everything and he did so, but it still required a point blank save by Simon Mignolet from Charlie Adam to keep Liverpool in the game at the start of the second half.

What followed might not have been inevitable, although Liverpool did grow in authority after surviving that scare, but it served as a reminder of the difference that the best players can make even when short of full fitness.

In the space of 126 seconds, Coutinho, with a well taken finish from inside the penalty area, and Firmino, with a stupendous half volley from outside the box, turned the game on its head.

Mignolet still needed to produce arguably the best save of his Anfield career to prevent Saido Berahino from equalising but from seeming certain to fail, Liverpool now seemed fated to succeed.

That they managed to do so could damage both United and Arsenal but it should also underline that Liverpool’s best chance of prevailing is when they accept the pressure of having to play like Liverpool.